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|A CurtainUp Review
Playwright Elizabeth Engloff has a penchant for drawing on classic works to create her own free-wheeling adaptations. Whether her dramas are forged from the works of others or freshly hatched they tend to merge the darkness of a story with comic elements that often border on the absurd/ In her adaptation of Phaedra she had a narrator trapped in a compulsive re-telling of Phaedra's love for her step-son, Hippolytus. In her comedy The Swan a much-married suburbanite seems destined to play the lonely mistress to her married milkman, until a swan crashes into her living room window, setting her on a journey that is as harrowing as it is hilarious.
Now we have Ms. Engloff's latest literature inspired play, The Devils, based on Dostoyevsky's tendentious novel of the same name (also known as The Possessed). . Director Garland Wright has so vividly orchestrated her work that three and three quarter hours go by faster than many a two hour or less play I've seen this season. And you'd be hard put to find a more dramatically lit (by James F. Ingalls) and designed set ( Douglas Stein) to draw you into this dark tale of violence and revolutionary dreams, (and pipedreams!) commingled with some hilarious scenes à la the theater of the absurd. As with another stunningly staged production further uptown, Stanley, it's a good idea to arrive early enough to sort out the stairs and catwalks the actors will navigate as they move in and out of the half dozen upstairs and downstairs rooms. When the theater darkens, the sounds (by David Van Tieghem) you hear and the set's sudden forward slide dramatically puts you on your guard for the intrigue and violence to come. Clearly, this young playwright has been given every resource of dramaturgy to make her ambitious new work another memorable production in the New York Theatre Workshop's increasingly distinguished line-up.
Ms. Engloff's merging of characters and the shifts in relationships do indeed tighten Dostoyevsky's long novel with its endless twists and turns. Her excisions may have been done with Henry James' description of Dostoevsky's works as "baggy monsters" and "fluid puddings" and a "defiance of economy and architecture" ringing in her ear. At times, however, these "liberties" flatten and obfuscate the characters and may send people to their nearest book store or library for a closer look at the source. As for the new focus on Nicholas' pedophelia, which never made it into either the serialized or first edition of the novel, this does little to animate or clarify what he's all about. For those unfamiliar with the novel the inclusion of some background program notes and perhaps an interview with the playwright would have gone far towards an enhanced appreciation of the fascinating changes wrought from the inspirational source. (The Joseph Papp Public Theater's programs with their always informative background notes come to mind here, as do the program notes by the Theatre for a New Audience's unusual production of The Changeling which featured one of the key actors in The Devils, Christopher McCann).
To summarize the sprawling drama fashioned from the even more sprawling novel, the story revolves around a core group of talky and inept revolutionaries, who may or may not comprise one group of many. Their former leader and the play's anti-hero, Nicholas Stavrogin, (Bill Camp), is a handsome aristocrat now driven more by inner demons than any fervor for social change. To step into his shoes and propel them into the misadventure that leads to a violent end for half a dozen members of the fifteen-member cast. there's an unscrupulous opportunist, Peter Verkhovensky, (Denis O'Hare). The most tragic member of this group is a printer named Shatov, (Christopher McCann) and the most enigmatic, besides the Jekyll-Hyde-like Nicholas, is Kirilov, (James Colby), whose willingness to sacrifice himself for the group's "cause" isn't a case of nobility but an affinity for suicide because it's "the only way to end fear of death.""
Other characters mixed into the plot are Nicholas' mother, (Lynn Cohen), and Peter's father, (Frank Raiter). who have had a twenty-year relationship that topples along with the local government. There's also Dasha, (Kali Rocha), who in addition to playing the roles Dostoyevsky assigned her--Mrs. Stavrorgin's serf and protege, Nicholas' lover and Shatov's sister-- also embodies several female roles which have been wisely eliminated from the play.
The most inventive changes from printed page to stage pertain the the province's inept governor, (Michael Arkin); his socially ambitious wife, (Randy Danson), and an aide, (Daniel Oreskes). The governor who in the book is a rather tragic figure has here metamorphosed into a caricature of the political empty suit easily manipulated by the aide, a minor character from the book who's been transformed into a combination film noire Russian KGB type and vaguely American type spin doctor. His twentieth century attire is in amusing contrast to the use of old-fashioned surveyance equipment and the playwright's way of underscoring Dostoyevsky's reputation for foreseeing Russia's endless changing of the guard history.
I won't spoil the suspense by detailing how all these characters' dreams and ambitions collide. Suffice it to say that where there's a glow, there will be a fire, and where there's a gun there will be blood. The cast adds up to a strong ensemble. Christopher McCann makes the most of Shatov who represents one of Dostoyevsky's favorite types the Meek Character. Bill Camp in another favorite Dostoyevskyan role--The Double or split personality--isn't quite as persuasive. Randy Danson is convincing as the governor's vain wife who is determined to be in the forefront of all "advanced movements" and is hilariously reminiscent of another First Lady when she coaches her husband at a public affair. Kali Rocha brings the right mix of reason and passion to the role of Dasha.
In the final analysis, this new-old melodrama is the director's triumph. He has mounted a production of pyrotechnic splendor and commandeered his large cast so skillfully that you tend to forget the play's weaknesses until you go home.
I would urge all who attend this production to read or re-read the book to intensify the experience. It's a long book, but it's a fast read. Be sure to get the edition that includes the appendix featuring Stavrogin's confession about the worst of his many dissolute acts which overarches the play. Apropos of this written confession which leads up to Stavrogin's final act in the play as well as the book, Nietzsche held Dostoyevsky in contempt for his "morbid moral tortures," his rejection of "proper pride." He accused him of sinning to enjoy the luxury of confession, and considered him one of the victims of the "conscience-vivisection and self-crucifixion of two thousand years" of Christianity." On the other hand he also said that Dostoevsky "the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn."
Some additional words of advice:
With a two-tiered set like this, the further back you sit, the better. However, since New York Theatre Workshop has limited seating capacity and since the success of Rent, has more than doubled the membership base, you may be lucky to get a ticket even in the front row.
Also, don't forget, as the people sitting next to me did, that due to the length of the play, evening performances begin an hour earlier than usual! And, yes,coffee and snacks are available in the lobby to recoup your energies during the two intermissions.